"We are the leaders we've been waiting for" by Caroline Slocock

“We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.” 

“We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”  These are the words that, first heard in 2016, have stuck most in my mind.  It’s easy to see ourselves as passive victims in the face of events, rather than recognize our potential to take control.   We wait for that charismatic leader to do the work for us, rather than look for the leader within, and very often we wait in vain. 

Leadership is innate in everybody and the truth is that many of us already exercise it in our working or personal lives.   This is arguably especially true of people who work in the social and public sectors, where lives are changed, causes advanced, communities strengthened, services improved by so many acts of individual and collective inspiration, innovation, vision and support.  But, sadly, this is obscured by technocratic practices that focus only on our role in delivering targets, projects, and services, like so many cogs in a machine. 

Leadership is all the better for being shared. I live on the site of William Wilberforce’s home and every day walk past a plaque commemorating what he achieved.  But, actually, it was a team effort that led to the abolition of slavery. The Clapham group, of which William Wilberforce was but one, consisted of around 20 individuals who shared the same values and vision.  They led collectively as well as individually.   Their solidarity and shared vision was probably just as important over the 20 years it took to achieve their goal as their individual actions. 

Think of any of the major social changes that have occurred over our lifetime, for example, greater equal opportunities for women and minority groups or heightened environmental awareness and an increased momentum worldwide toward addressing global warming.  These would not have happened without the individual and collective leadership of the many, not just the few.

These reflections have, in 2016, helped inspire me to work with others in setting up A Better Way.  It started with a small group of people who, like me, share a radical thought: we are all leaders, and have the power to shape better services and create stronger communities, if only we can break free from practices that are holding back this hidden potential and can point the way to how it can be done better.   

This is not just about exercising leadership as managers and deliverers of services, but about sharing and giving power to others within services and communities. Too often, people and places become the passive recipients of services, treated as problems to be solved, or as failing communities, rather than enabling them to lead change in their own lives.   They are not the problem, but the solution.

Since we launched the network others have joined it, committed to exchanging ideas and reflections in small groups or “cells”.    Individually, they will take different things from this, including, I hope, inspiration that helps spark new ideas and action in their own different spheres.  Our collective task is to explore, understand, and indeed challenge, the principles the founding group first set out, drawing on the good practice that already exists.  In 2017, more cells across the country are being established and, over time, we hope A Better Way may become a movement.  The dialogue, trust and strong relationships created through this are in themselves an expression of the kind of change we’d like to see.

In the end, as in the beginning of this piece, I come back to the thought that leadership starts at home.  As we set out in one of our founding principles, “changing ourselves is better than demanding change from others.”  Or, as Mahatma Gandhi also said: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Caroline Slocock is the Director of Civil Exchange and a founding member and co-organiser of A Better Way